Chapter Five. The picture of church in Jesus’ head
Note: To read earlier chapters, go here and scroll down.
So, by the late 1980s, I had a clear picture in my head of what church was. The troubling question that came to me during this time (while I was on staff with a mega church!) was… “What picture did Jesus (and his followers) have in His head (or their heads)?” Amazingly, I don’t think I had ever thought about that.
This question moved me to begin to reread my New Testament. As I did, three ideas started to emerge. I would spend the next ten years trying to understand these ideas and trying to see how to implement them in the context of institutional churches. Here’s the first idea…
I saw that every church mentioned in the Bible met in a home and functioned like a small spiritual family. Now, I had faithfully read my bible for years but somehow I had completely overlooked this fact! (i.e., It didn’t fit my paradigm1 of church.) These early Christians lived life together. When they gathered for church, it was an experience of intimate family-like community. Here’s one place Jesus speaks about this…
Jesus: “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking about at those who were sitting in a circle around Him, He said, “Here are my mother and My brothers! Whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother.”2
One New Testament scholar says it this way…
“It is hardly accidental that the New Testament writers chose the concept of family as the central social metaphor to describe the kind of interpersonal relationships that were to characterize those early Christian communities.”3
In the church of 3000 where I was a pastor, a person could attend the church service every week for a year and never even sit next to the same person. Of course, we had small groups but they were secondary at best. Only a fraction of the people attending on Sunday were in a small group. Real “church” was what we did on Sunday morning in a sanctuary that sat 900. “And, oh, if you have time, we’d like you to be in a small group.”
This growing insight about church in the Bible was quite disturbing. What it meant was that my practice of church (and of everyone else that I knew at that time) was a significant departure from the practice described in the New Testament.
This new insight was disturbing because I had a strong commitment to the Bible. From the time I was 15, I had faithfully studied and taught the Scriptures. I (and my fellow Christian leaders) held to this statement: “The Bible is our authoritative guide for faith and practice.” The key word here was “practice”. What I was realizing was that our “practice” of church was quite different from what I was now seeing in the Bible.
A few of the pictures of church in the New Testament
- “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Acts 2:46.
- In Rome. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila… and the church that meets in their house.” Rom. 16:3-5.
- From Ephesus. “Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.” 1 Cor. 16:19.
- “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” Col. 4:15.
- “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:” Philemon 2
Later, I learned that this way of thinking about church and of practicing church was not limited to the first century.
The New Testament Church began as a small group house church (Col. 4:15) and it remained so until the middle or end of the third century. There are no evidences of larger places of meeting before 300.4
My assumption was that the way the early followers of Jesus thought about and practiced church must have reflected what was in Jesus’ head on this subject. And, this was clearly not what had been in my head. This created something called cognitive dissonance5 in me. I was to wrestle with what this meant for the next ten years. I had not yet heard the phrase “vibrant families of Jesus”. But, already it was beginning to become clear that “family” was far more important in understanding “church” than I had ever understood.
Question to discuss with the Lord and your other friends: Does your church experience look and feel like “family”?
1 The word “paradigm” simply means a model or example. But, it can function like a filter through which we see the world. I realized that I had been reading the Bible through the lens of my experience in institutional churches and was blind to anything else.
2 Mark 3:33-35.
3 Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, p. 6. I read this book many years later but I think it captures the centrality of family for Jesus and the early church.
4 Snyder, ANTE PACEM. Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, p. 166.
5 Cognitive dissonance was one of the few things I remembered from my time as sociology major in college. “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance